PARIS – Europe is running behind North America in its development of second-generation biofuels for transportation because politicians haven’t decided a clear course, French researchers say.
“We have to advance one step at a time” to displace more petroleum-based fuels with biofuels, says Pierre Porot, deputy director-IPF New Energies, the French national lab for fuels. “The problem in Europe is that we take one step forward, two steps back, one to the right, one to the left.”
Today, he says, four industrial-quantity ethanol plants that will use waste biomass such as corncobs and tree branches are under construction in North America, while there is only one in Europe.
Porot says the European Commission has changed its attitude toward biofuels after an early infatuation and has complicated the rules so that industrial companies are loath to risk investments.
In 2005, biofuels were seen as a panacea for reducing Europe’s carbon-dioxide emissions, says CEO Olivier Appert of the IPF. Rules were put in place requiring that by 2020, 10% of energy used for transportation should come from something other than petroleum.
Environmentalists then began changing sides and talking about the competition between food and fuel. The first generation of ethanol is made from sugars and starches such as corn and sugar cane, while biodiesel is made from colza, a plant related to the turnip that is grown extensively throughout Europe.
In response, Porot says, Europe added rules about the source of the biomass that has damaged the profit outlook for early biofuel producers and chilled the investment market for second-generation biofuels that will make fuel from agricultural wastes.
The IFP derives about half its revenue from France and other government research projects, and about half from selling technology to private industry. In the past, the IFP concentrated only on petroleum but began working on biofuels in 2005, Appert says.
In partnership with petroleum company Total, beet-sugar maker Tereos, other research labs and banks, IFP constructed a pilot plant with a laboratory capacity of about 80 tons (72 t) a year near Reims to test different second-generation processes.
The next step for the Futurol project is a facility that would make 1,500 tons (1,360 t) a year, or about 500,000 gallons (1.9 million L), if approved by the partners later this year. However, that is far short of the industrial scale required to produce fuel that is competitive with gasoline.
One of the American plants under development has capacity for 45,000 tons (40,815 t); the capacity of two others is 60,000 tons (54,420 t) each; and another has 80,000 tons (72,560 t). The Chemtex plant in Italy is rated at 40,000 tons (36,280 t) and the Sinopec plant under construction in China has a capacity of 80,000 tons.
The IFP business plan is to begin marketing the technology it is developing at Futurol by 2016-17, Appert says, adding, “We are not behind schedule, but we are not ahead of schedule.”
First-generation biofuels today provide about 3% of Europe’s transportation energy needs, with gasoline at 46%, diesel at 32%, jet fuel at 11% and heavy marine oil at 6%, he says. Even at 3%, biofuel is the leading alternative fuel source; liquefied petroleum gas and compressed natural gas each represent about 1%, and electricity is absent from the charts from a global perspective.
The IFP calculates global demand for energy will rise 44% between 2009 and 2030, mainly in Asia. In North America, the French laboratory predicts gasoline demand will drop by 2030, thanks to increasing corporate average fuel economy requirements in the U.S.
The decline in demand for gasoline will compensate for increases in demand for diesel fuel for trucks, jet fuel and marine fuel.